But the eyes spoke
He was on his fifth cigarette for the day. Only a couple of days ago, Nakul had vowed to quit smoking — the second time this year. Yet again, however, the troubles at the construction site had got the better of him. And he had regressed to this old undesirable habit.
As he stood near the scaffolding on the twentieth floor of his construction company’s long-due high rise, he spotted a young man standing in the window of the building right across the street. The man wore a prim suit, and looked out of his plush office’s window with eyes that betrayed a moment of contemplation. Suddenly, he broke his distant gaze and peered at Nakul, or so he felt.
Recent losses at his company had had a toll on Nakul’s usually sociable demeanour, and the suited man’s unwitting intrusion into his solitary moment, and the picture of success that he presented, vexed him. He turned away, a flicker of revulsion in his eyes, and darted to the other end of the floor where the building overlooked a barren playground.
He must have walked only a couple of yards when he heard a brief thud followed by a commotion in the street. He rushed back to the scaffolding and stared below. On the street, a man lay flat on the concrete, motionless — the red of his necktie one with the life blood flowing out of his being.
To say that Rian Nath was a hardworking individual was to belittle the immense effort he put in each time to outperform his peers and, more importantly, his own self. Having completed his management degree at Yale, no one was surprised when he managed to land himself a coveted role with a well known investment fund based out of New York. What, however, amazed everyone was how he quit this position merely two years into the employment at a time when he looked to be gearing up for a greater role.
Rian’s reasons for returning to India were not out of the ordinary in the economic milieu of that time. The hallowed portals of the west were, slowly yet steadily, beginning to lose their shimmer. Meanwhile, all corners were abuzz with the opportunity that was the Indian subcontinent.
It started at a Halloween party involving folk from the office. As is with the case with a lot of financial firms in the US, there was an inordinate amount of Asians at the party. Rian was usually quite the party enthusiast but the hollering at this one was getting on his nerves, so he quietly carried his drink away to a distant corner of the hall. The view of the party from the sidelines is way more comforting, he thought.
“Hello boss!”, an unmistakable Indian accent reached out to him.
Rian turned around and was greeted by the rather disconcerting sight of a bearded young man sporting a ginger wig. It was Samarth aka Sam from the Tech enablement team. Rian knew him from the frequent run-ins he had with the team while setting up tracking systems for the fund’s investee companies. Sam was a popular member of the team, both for his skills and his more than candid demeanour.
“Hi Sam! Don’t see Fred and George around?”, Rian quipped and cackled. Sam took a while to get the reference and chuckled sheepishly when he did. Sam was quick to pick up a conversation, and it gave Rian a good reason to stay put in that corner, so he obliged.
A couple of drinks down, the conversation trailed into Rian ranting about the monotony he was grappling with at work. “It’s the same for everyone, man!”, Sam quipped. “But, you know what, I have a plan to get out of this”, he added.
Sam then went on to fill in Rian on the idea of an app to connect qualified doctors to patients needing their services. “The availability of this information is still at a very primitive stage in India. This will work!”, he spoke with excitement in his eyes. Rian expressed his agreement with the idea’s potential with intermittent nodding. At midnight, Sam left the party promising to get back to him with more on this. “You should join in. It’ll be fun!”, he shouted before tripping on a chair on his way out.
Rian didn’t expect to hear another word on the idea thinking it to be drunken banter, but he was in for a surprise. Sam showed up at his desk the next evening. “Coffee?”, he asked, with a twinkle in his eyes.
As they sat at the cafe, they were joined by another lanky fellow. Sam introduced him as an old friend who had worked on the idea along with him. By the end of the four hour long conversation and some credible research that Sam laid out animatedly, Rian was sold. It was only the part of moving back to India that bothered him. Besides the lifestyle that he had grown accustomed to, the city had given him Jen, his girlfriend of two years. He didn’t express the plans stewing in his head to her for almost a week, and when he did, almost as an information of his decision, she was taken aback.
So was Rian’s senior at office. However, unlike Jen who collected herself, stood by Rian’s decision and then comforted him that they will work things out, his senior was dismissive of his scheme and warned him from wrecking an extremely promising career. There was little, however, that could change Rian’s mind now. Hearing similar stories of the foray into entrepreneurship from his Yale circle only buoyed his confidence. His parents, residing in a small town in India, were jubilant with his homecoming.
And with this began months of long nights, caffeine laden conversations, drawing-board sessions, field research and some more drawing board ideation. Very soon they had a working app and the reception from initial audience made up largely of friends and acquintances was, well, friendly. Yet, what they needed was money, and the guys with the money were tough to find, and even tougher to impress. Sam was almost exclusively positive and that rubbed off on Rian.
He now shared a rented space in Mumbai with Sam and two of the company’s other brains. A far cry from list Manhattan dwelling but he couldn’t have complained lesser. He told himself that he was working towards a successful future on his own terms, and the brickwork, though time consuming, needed to be perfect. Soon enough, however, the cracks began to show.
The first jolt was personal. His long distance relationship with Jen seemed to be going rather well when, one fine day, Jen called him in the wee hours of the morning. Though an unlikely hour for her to call, Rian was wide awake and preparing for the upcoming investor pitch when the phone rang. Jen’s first words told him something was wrong, and then she began to bawl. Amid her intermittent sobs and Rian’s anxious sighs, she recounted how she felt a deep void following his departure, something the phone calls and infrequent skype conversations could barely make up for.
Rian knew what was coming but kept mum. Jen hesitated for a bit and then spoke about this person in her workplace who she had gotten close to.
“But it’s been only three months.”, Rian said and immediately realized the futility of the question. He was standing out of Sam’s earshot but his pallor made the tone of the conversation evident, and Sam showed himself out of the room.
Jen went on to explain how she didn’t want any of it but his physical and, for importantly, his emotional absence had sucked her into this. Meanwhile, a solitary tear concluded its sluggish journey on Rian’s sleeve.
“What happens now?”, the words choked on his lips. The ensuing silence was answer enough.
“I’ll remember the good parts”, he murmured, before disconnecting the call.
He lay flat on the mattress for the remaining period of the night. A part of him wanted to call Sam and let it all out. A bigger part of him just wanted to lay there motionless and let the moment, and the several hundreds after that, pass.
Next morning, he spoke about it to Sam and the others. They had a crucial meeting in three days time and despite all the concern they showered on him, Rian chose to put his head down and work. The investors were happy with what they had, and the plans they had for the future. But they did not want to invest now. They needed a proof of concept — a user base of a hundred thousand before they would put in money to aid the expansion. But to reach there, they did need more money. Rian’s father came to the rescue and arranged a bank loan. Along with the savings that Rian could possibly let go off, the capital seemed to be something they could work with.
Rian was a sharp individual and although most of his life’s success had come to him without any significant challenges, he improvised in the current situation. Armed with low cost marketing strategies, they seemed to be turning the tide in their favour. They met the investors again and one of them, who possessed a strong voice in the panel, backed them. Rian and the team were overjoyed.
The money was nothing stellar but gave them breathing space for just under 6 months. It was decided that they needed a better working space and some new hires in the relationship team who will get more doctors and hospitals on board. Rian informed his parents who were delighted and relieved. He thought of Jen. And then held himself back.
The growth came in slow but it was palpable. They had begun this fresh lease of life with about fifteen people, but after about three months, three of them left the company. Mr Kapoor, the man at the helm of the investing company, called Rian one day.
“When were you going to tell me we have a competitor on the block?”, he blurted out the words derisively. Rian was puzzled. He had little idea what was being talked about.
“There is a new player in the market and they have almost the same amount of doctors and hospitals on board, and they are acquiring more as we speak.”
Rian, surprised that he hadn’t had a whiff of this, assured him there was nothing to worry about since their user base would hold them strong. Mr Kapoor laughed mockingly. “You don’t know the world, kid. Somebody with a bigger pocket than mine is going to buy the loyalty of your users”, he said coldly.
As soon as he kept the phone down, Rian walked up to Sam. “How do they have these hospitals on board already? It took us months!”, he implored. Sam made a few calls and was visibly furious when he met Rian again.
“You remember those three guys who left our company last month. Buggers, they sold us out.”, he shouted. As soon as he said this, Sam briskly walked out of the room leaving behind a crestfallen Rian.
“They were your hires, weren’t they?”, Sam spewed out these words before he bolted himself out, in a manner remarkably uncharacteristic of him.
And then the nightmare began to unravel. While they went after hiring more sales folk, five of their current team handed in their papers and moved to the competitor. “The jerks do have big pockets”, Sam sneered. He hadn’t reproached Rian since, nor had Rian quizzed him on his scathing remark. But there was an unmistakable change in his behaviour.
The rival company launched an aggressive billboard and TV campaign, and Rian and team started losing users quicker than the waning of the Mumbai winter. Rian looked like a deer in the headlights and merely watched as the ground beneath him started slipping away. Soon enough, Mr Kapoor came knocking and urged them to sell. It was practically an order since he had a controlling stake. Negotiations began and things didn’t sit pretty there.
Rian had never looked this distraught. Sam would come from time to time and try to raise his spirits but their kinship wasn’t the way it was when they had started out. He spoke to his parents infrequently — they told him of all the jobs that he could go back to and how this was nowhere close to being a dead end. Yet, the vision he had had of the future, a gleaming one, when he set out on this venture, haunted Rian. He had never dealt with real failure and now it tasted bitter. And it made him sick.
After a search lasting about a month, they found an established company willing to buy them out. Their team would work with them the next few days on deciding the valuation. Neither Ryan nor Sam were expecting to fill up their purses from this but this straw to cling to in this murky sea was a relief. Rian stayed longer that evening at the local bar — a place he now visited too often for comfort. He looked at his phone as he sipped on his seventh glass of whiskey. He realized he still had Jen on speed dial. And he called.
Jen sounded startled yet greeted him politely. Rian asked her how she was, trying hard to mask the dejection in his voice. Jen sounded cheerful, almost annoyingly so for Rian, and told him about her new apartment. Then she playfully asked him how ‘the tycoon’, an epithet she used during their time together, had been reminded of her. Rian felt a strange anger gripping his being. Perhaps, it was the alcohol. He clasped the glass tighter and restrained himself. “Nothing much. I will speak to you later”, he muttered and promptly cut the call.
Next morning was the big meeting. Rian and Sam wore the most formal attire they had sported in a long time. Mr Kapoor’s team came in followed by the team of the new investors with a bevy of analysts who quickly launched into a presentation. At the end of it all, their senior interjected and spoke of what they had to offer. Rian was gutted. Going by the terms of their initial funding agreement with Mr Kapoor, he would get a preferred liquidation, which under the current circumstances meant that both Sam and he got nothing. Mr Kapoor had no reason to refuse the offer. Sam didn’t speak a word to Ryan and gave his nod to the proposal. Rian was surprised but he had little choice. Everyone shook hands and Mr Kapoor patted Rian on his shoulder as he walked out.
Rian got up slowly and distanced himself from the group of people. He ambled to the other end and looked out of the window of the office that was not his anymore. Across the road, he saw a building under construction. It reminded him of the time he had started out in this venture with all the dreams under his belt. And the excitement of building something afresh. What he had not braced for was this — if all came crashing down.
He was merely a shade of the gregarious soul he was less than ten months ago. Jen, all the friends he had lost touch with in the last few tumultuous months, and even Sam — none of them were standing beside him now.
Deep in thought, his gaze met that of a man in the window of the building under construction. He exuded a sense of authority in the way he ordered around the workers. Rian felt an urge to be in his place — in control, and immersed in building something of his own. Something with possibilities with its fate not yet decided.
He kept staring at him for a few seconds till the man gave him a dismissive look and turned his face away. All of a sudden, something inside Ryan died. In that moment, he felt alone like never before.
A voice from his gut spoke to him. He looked at the street below.